Road Trip: Rolling Down the Washington and Oregon Coasts in a VW Vanagon
By Brian E. Clark
When my oldest son finished his college studies a decade ago, we decamped for the Rogue River in southwest Oregon for a mellow, four-day rafting and kayaking trip with OARS, an Angels Camp, CA-based outfitter.
This past summer (2019), to toast my daughter’s graduation from high school, she, her younger brother, and I headed back to the Northwest – this time for a road trip that took us down the coasts of Washington and Oregon before heading over the Cascade Mountains to Bend.
But it wasn’t just any road trip. In something of a throwback to my long-hair days, we rented a restored VW Vanagon Westfalia from Peace Vans in Seattle to toddle along highways and byways on this adventure, celebrating yet another major youthful milestone.
Before we picked up our VW bus, we toured Seattle’s 605-foot-tall Space Needle and wandered around Pike Place Market to watch fish vendors toss big salmon back and forth. Then it was off to Peace Vans in the mixed-industrial SoDo (South of Downtown) neighborhood, where we met owner Harley Sitner, who introduced us to 32-year-old Hamma Hamma, our Vanagon home for the next week.
Sitner explained all the ins and outs of this particular VW bus, gave us a reference notebook and a service number to call in case we needed aid. (Hey, even brand new vehicles break down.) Then, because it had been a decade since I’d used a manual transmission, I carefully backed up the Vanagon and drove around the block without the kids.
Feeling comfortable, my youngsters (now 17-year-old Anders and 19-year-old Maddie) hopped in and we were off. We rolled south down Interstate 5, pushing the four-cylinder engine to a top speed of around 65 miles per hour. I recognized much of the road, which I’d driven many times during my decade of writing for the daily newspaper in Olympia.
When we crossed over the Nisqually River south of Tacoma, I pointed to the west over the verdant Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and Nisqually Reach, where I’d paddled my sea kayak a number of times. In town, we hiked on trails in Tumwater Falls State Park, which though only meters from the interstate, seemed a world away – thanks to its cascades of tumbling water in a narrow gorge. Total distance from SoDo to Olympia, 70 miles.
For a late lunch, we pulled into a parking lot filled not far from the state capitol building that was filled with food carts where we met up with Matt – my oldest son – and his mother. We dined on yummy burritos, compared funky VW bus stories and enjoyed the afternoon sun.
We said our goodbyes, hugged and headed west on Highway 101 and Highway 8 through logging country. We reached the Pacific at Willapa Bay in about 90 minutes before arriving at our destination for the next two nights, the 2,000-acre Cape Disappointment State Park about 130 miles from Olympia. Located at the mouth of the Columbia River, the rugged headlands here earned their name because it was so difficult for mariners to enter the river. Truth be told, many a ship was wrecked here.
Shortly after arrival at a campground just steps from the ocean, we rolled out our sleeping bags and popped the top of our camper – where Maddie got the upper bunk, fit for a princess – while Anders and I shared the lower level. We all got a good night’s rest and woke the next morning to the sun poking through the mist.
Lo and behold, another VW Vanagon was parked next to us. Even better, it’s occupants were an elderly German couple whom I nicknamed “Hansel and Gretel.” While Maddie and Anders went for an exploratory walk, the friendly neighbors invited me for tea and the pair – both former professors at the University of Washington in Seattle – told me they’d been traveling around the Northwest in their bus on vacations for decades.
When the kids returned, we snacked and hiked along the beaches of the park and clambered over huge pieces of driftwood – whole trees in some cases – that looked as if they’d been tossed ashore like pick-up sticks. When monstrous ocean waves batter the coast, that’s likely no exaggeration.
That afternoon, we walked out to the North Head Lighthouse, which was built in 1897 and has a six-story tower. We strolled around the keepers living quarters, which can be rented by overnight visitors.
We also toured the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center which commemorates their famed “Corps of Discovery Expedition.” Their epic trip culminated in November 1805, when the party reached the Pacific. “Great joy in camp,” Clark wrote in his journal, “we are in view of the ocean, this great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to see.”
We dined that night with Hansel and Gretel, made s’mores over a campfire, and said goodbye to them in the morning before continuing south on Highway 101. We crossed the Columbia at Astoria, Oregon in our trusty Hamma Hamma and continued on 133 miles to the Salishan Resort south of kitschy Lincoln City. After roughing it a bit, we were more than happy to spend a few nights at this upscale hostelry.
We hiked on trails that lead from the resort out to the coast, explored tide pools, and climbed in some old-growth trees on a ropes-and-swaying-bridges course. But the best part of our stay was doing a stand-up-paddleboard (SUP) excursion on the Siletz River and its estuary, where we saw bald eagles, great blue herons, and wood ducks, among others. All went well on the five-mile outing until I looked up to see an osprey, lost my balance, and walked backward off my board. Quicker than you could say “boo!,” I was out of the chilly water and back upright.
We bid goodbye after two nights to the Salishan and its way-cool Land Rover, which had transported us and our SUPs to the Siletz.
Our trusty VW bus chugged east on Highways 18 and 22 over rolling coastal hills near Dallas (Oregon) that had vineyards reminded me of Napa and Sonoma counties. We stopped for lunch in Salem and then pushed on over the Cascades to Bend on Highway 22 and 20. Hamma Hamma struggled a bit in the mountains, prompting a couple of irate motorists to flip us off as they passed. They apparently didn’t like it that our top speed was 55 on the steeper sections.
But we made it to Bend, our penultimate destination, where we picnicked in Drake Park on the banks of the Deschutes River, hiked trails at Smith Rock State Park, visited friends, and ate pizza in the Old Mill District. The best part for Maddie, the soon-to-be college coed and future veterinarian was visiting a llama and alpaca farm north of town where she got to feed and pet the friendly critters.
Anders and I put her on a plane the next day to head off to an orientation at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Then we chugged back to Seattle, dropped off our van, and toasted our adventure with a root beer float. When he graduates in the spring of 2021, we may just be back to rent another van to putter north for a loop around British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.